Why bother with Advent?

advent-wreath

Many Christians experience a sense of angst during the Season of Advent.

We see Christmas lights adorning the houses in our neighborhoods, and familiar Holiday songs are bursting from the speakers in our cars. We’re baking cookies and wrapping the presents that we’ve bought for other people. Children are getting excited. Pine trees are being strapped to the roofs of automobiles and are being dragged into homes where they’ll be decorated with lights and tinsel and ornaments. We’re celebrating the Holiday Season at parties that are being hosted by our friends, and favorite recipes are being shared. And then, we come to worship and discover that Pastor Grinch won’t allow us to decorate the inside of the church building with things we’re seeing everywhere else.  And we just can’t understand why Pastor Grinch is such a curmudgeon.

Many people in the Church celebrate Advent during the days and weeks before Christmas. Advent is a time when we’re called to simply stop and reflect upon the “gap” between the things that we see and experience in our daily lives and what God intends for our lives and our world. The Bible tells us about a Day when lambs will rest peacefully beside wolves and when bears will graze beside cows (Isaiah 11:6-7). The Bible speaks about a glorious Day in human history when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and when spears will be used for pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). God comforts His people with a great message of hope that is meant to encourage us and lift our spirits (Isaiah 40:1-2). And yet, we’re not there yet, are we? Our hearts and our souls yearn for better days in the midst of times that are not always easy to face. And in that yearning of the soul, we discover what it means to live our lives with faith and to look forward to something better.

The Holiday Season isn’t easy for everyone. Picture a woman, who’s being abused by the man that she once loved, desperately doing her best to tough-it-out because she doesn’t want to ruin her children’s Christmas by uprooting the family and moving into the local women’s shelter. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder find the days that surround Christmas very difficult because the nights are so incredibly long. The Holiday Season can highlight the sense of brokenness that we experience when we’re trying to move through difficult times with our friends and, sometimes, with members of our own family. Even the well-known Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” sounds very different when you’re hearing it for the first time after you’ve lost your spouse – or a parent – or a child.

Advent is a Season that invites us to be real and authentic. Advent is a Season that invites us to acknowledge that our lives and our relationships aren’t perfect; and that reminds us that, even on the longest night of the entire year, the light of Christ still shines. God walks beside us and lifts us up in times when we need strength and courage. God reminds us that better days are surely coming – even when we’re ready to throw-in the towel. Wars and violence will cease. Families and relationships will be restored. Even the shadow of death, itself, will be overcome by the glorious light of the Prince of Peace. Our lives and our souls will be healed by the power of God. And when it’s all said and done, we will be lifted-up by the Christ that we meet on Christmas.

Radical authenticity isn’t easy. Our lives aren’t always what we want them to be, and our relationships and families are far more complex than what can be described by a Hallmark card. And we want to run away from that. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us want to run toward Christmas as quickly as we can. We want to experience the joy again. We want that feeling of hope. We want the “peace on earth” that’s announced from pulpits around the world. But, Pastor Grinch wants us to slow down and to take some time to think about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. That dastardly, old curmudgeon wants us to look deeply into the parts of our lives that desperately need God’s healing presence. And, from that deep and profound sense of authenticity, he invites us to come to the Manger – and to stand face-to-face with the God who has the power to make us whole again.

It’s not always easy for us to move through Advent when the rest of the world is filled with people who are shouting, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” We’re always going to be tempted to flee from the radical kinds of authenticity that challenge us to openly admit what’s broken in our lives and in the world. We want to flee from what makes us feel uncomfortable, and run full-speed-ahead toward what’s both familiar and safe. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us are tempted to push Advent out of the way on our way toward Christmas? Maybe our very human reluctance to embrace Advent is caused by the fact that we don’t want to fully embrace the parts of our lives and of our human experience that God wants to heal?

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 38 and 39

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Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good and His mercy endures forever!

We celebrate a national Day of Thanksgiving in the United States this week.

People drive many miles to spend time with their family. Houses are filled with familiar smells as pies are baked and as turkeys spend hours in the oven. Some people watch the big parades and the football games that have become a part of Thanksgiving Day. Other people spend time reviewing their Christmas list, so that they can hit the ground running on Black Friday. And, at some point, we all encounter the “pregnant moment” when we gather around a great feast and prepare to eat.

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Many of us live our lives believing that we work hard for all the things that we have and for the food that we eat. Many of us celebrate “Turkey Day” with little awareness of God’s blessings in our lives and in the lives of those that we love. It’s easy to forget about all of the prayers that God has answered and the blessings that God has given. It’s easy for us to forget about the blessings of good health, warm homes and peace. Martin Luther once wrote that, as Christ teaches us to pray “give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus tells us to remember that it is God who gives us our food and drink, clothing, shoes, house, money, goods, husbands and wives, children, our government, good weather, peace, good health, good friends and neighbors, self-control and a good reputation. When we pray – “Give us this day our daily bread” – we recall that God’s the source of everything.

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Perhaps, we need to pause and think about what life would be like if we didn’t have any food, any clothes to wear, warm homes to enjoy, and good health? Perhaps, we need to pause for a moment and think about what life would be like if we didn’t have any fresh water to drink, enough money to pay our bills, good weather, family and friends?

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Perhaps because it’s easy to forget that we’re richly blessed? Perhaps because we need to stop – at least for a short moment once each year – to just think about the Wonderful God who fills our lives with so many good things? Perhaps in that “pregnant moment” we can think about the people in our world who are less fortunate than we are? Perhaps in that once-a-year “pregnant moment” we can simply stop and think about ways that we can be a blessing in the lives of other people who don’t enjoy simple blessings that we often take for granted as we prepare to enter another Holiday Season?

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

It’s important to celebrate Thanksgiving because it prepares us for what’s coming next. We remember that being “blessed” doesn’t always mean “having more.” We remember that life’s about far more than getting the biggest box that’s under the tree, or the most expensive electronic device. Life is about learning to appreciate what God gives us. Life is about finding ways to share goodness with others. Thanksgiving reminds us that God fills our lives with blessings we can share with other people. We become more generous, more giving and more aware of the needs of others when we stop and realize how richly we’ve been blessed in the past year.

I hope and pray that you’ll enjoy this Thanksgiving with those you love. I also hope and pray that, when you come to the “pregnant moment” we’ll all face as we gather around the table where a great feast is set before us that you’ll take a moment to just pause – and to reflect for a moment – and to give thanks for the many blessings that God has poured into your life.

And then, as you rise from the feast and prepare to journey into the “Season of Giving,” I hope and pray that you’ll carry with you a generous spirit – filled to overflowing with the type of thanksgiving that gives birth to love, to kindness, and to generosity.

Here are the readings for the next two weeks:

Week #38

Sunday: Philemon – Monday: Numbers 21-24 – Tuesday: 2 Chronicles 1-5 – Wednesday: Psalms 111-113 – Thursday: Proverbs 25 – Friday: Amos 5-9 – Saturday: John 19-21

Week #39

Sunday: Hebrews 1-4 – Monday: Numbers 25-28 – Tuesday: 2 Chronicles 6-10 – Wednesday: Psalms 114-116 – Thursday: Proverbs 26-27 – Friday: Obadiah – Saturday: Acts 1-2

 

Dreams, Talents, Passions and Risk

Money Bag

Take a moment to simply dream….

Imagine that you’ve bought a Powerball ticket and that you’re sitting at home watching the balls bounce around in the machine; and, when the numbers come out, you realize that you’ve won! Imagine yourself as the recipient of millions and millions of dollars – perhaps more money than you can even imagine.

What would you do with it?

You could risk your millions in the stock market, or you could buy an ordinary CD. You could do something that may or may not work, or you could stuff the money into your mattress. That’s what this week’s message, “Dreams, Talents, Passions and Risk”, is all about.

Jesus once told a story about a rich man who entrusted money into the hands of servants and who, then, went away on a journey. Two of the servants doubled the money that they were given through wise investments. But the other servant was paralyzed by fear when he received the money, and he simply buried the money in the ground to keep it safe.

So, let me ask you a question….

If I asked you to stand-up and to tell all of your friends about your greatest gift or talent, what would you tell them about?

If I asked you to stand-up and to tell all of your friends about the greatest gift or talent that you’ve been given, what would you say?

You see, that’s your million dollars. Some people are musicians and others can teach. Still others are skilled craftsmen who can properly maintain property, and yet others have the self-discipline to own their own business. Some people are great bakers. Some people are known for their generous financial support of worthy causes. Some people can step up to the plate and offer leadership skills to churches and organizations. Still others are able to handle “little details” that easily slip between the cracks when people get busy.

The story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25:14-30 is a story about trustworthiness. The point of the story is NOT that some people have more talents and abilities and gifts than other people – even though that might be true. The point of the story is NOT that some people have more resources to bring to the table than others – even though that might be true.

What Jesus wants us to see is that the greatest risk is NOT found in boldly investing and risking everything. The greatest risk is NOT encountered when we “put it all on the line” and “step-out in faith.” The greatest risk is encountered when we never get to the point in life (or in ministry) where we care enough about something to invest ourselves in deep and passionate ways. In this story, Jesus tells us that trustworthiness is often lived-into by those who become driven and who are passionate enough to invest everything they have – lock, stock, and barrel.

What are you passionate about? What kinds of things excite you, and would drive you to invest your God-given gifts and talents with excitement and passion and energy? What hopes and dreams do you have? If you had millions and millions of dollars to distribute, what would you do with your money?

I end this week’s message, “Dreams, Talents, Passions and Risk”, with a metaphor that’s meant to challenge and push you. How would you live your life differently if you knew that the greatest risk of all is dying with your toys still left in your bag? How would you live your life differently if you knew that, one day, you would be left thinking about what you could have done differently in life – if you had been willing to “take a chance” and to trust God enough to use you to change the world?

That’s the challenge of trustworthiness. That’s why we all need to struggle, and to learn how to navigate through lives that are filled with “Dreams, Talents, Passions and Risk”.

 

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 36 and 37

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Welcome back to “Read Through the Bible”

The Bible is full of many instructions and exhortations. We’re called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds and spirits, and we’re called to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. (Matthew 22:35-40) We’re called to preach the Word, and to reprove, rebuke and exhort with patience. (2 Timothy 4:2) We’re called to fight the good fight and to keep the faith (1 Timothy 6:12), and we’re told that we always need to be ready to bear witness to the hope that’s inside of us. (1 Peter 3:15)

And it all sounds pretty exhausting.

One of the things that I see more and more these days is that people are tired. We fill our days with an almost endless list of chores, and we go to bed thinking about what we’re going to do the first thing tomorrow morning. I recently told a friend of mine that I often feel like I’m burning the candle at both ends while trying to light the middle. I fall asleep as soon as I sit down in my recliner. I start to snore as soon as my head hits the pillow. I often wake-up exhausted in the morning, and then pull myself together and get-on with the rest of the day. Does that sound familiar? Could you be writing these words?

But even in the midst of the craziness we call life, Jesus reminds us that He is the “vine” and we are the “branches.” (John 15:5)

Part of our spiritual journey is learning to find those precious places in life where God nourishes us and sustains us. Can we see God’s presence in the people that God sends to stand beside us and encourage us? Can we hear God’s call to stop and to build our lives around the things that we believe God wants us to do with our time and energy? Can we hear God’s call to see the value of Sabbath rest? God promises to nourish and sustain us, but God also calls us to stop and to remain focused. Jesus promises us that the Great Vine will continue to supply what we need the most to grow and flourish, but Jesus reminds us that we will all have times when we need to be pruned and trimmed-back in order to bear the fruits of God’s Reign.

This week, I’d like to encourage you to stop and to think about the places in life where you’re being nourished and sustained by God. I’d also like to encourage you stop and to think about parts of your life that God might be trying to trim-back and prune right now.

Faith calls us to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds and spirits, and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Faith calls to preach the Word, and to reprove, rebuke and exhort with patience. Faith calls to fight the good fight and to keep the faith while always remaining ready to bear witness to the hope that’s inside of us.

And it all sounds pretty exhausting.

How are you being sustained by the Vine? Where can you see those special places where God comes to nourish and sustain you? Is God calling you to stop and to allow Him to do a bit of pruning, so that you’ll continue to bear the fruit that He wants you to bear? Can you hear the God who loves you calling you to search for precious moments of Sabbath rest, so that you’ll remain both healthy and whole as you continue to live-out your faith and live-into God’s plan for your life?

Here are the weekly readings:

Week #36

Sunday: 2 Timothy 3-4 – Monday: Numbers 13-16 – Tuesday: 1 Chronicles 20-24 – Wednesday: Psalms 105-107 – Thursday: Proverbs 22 – Friday: Joel – Saturday: John 13-15

Week #37

Sunday: Titus – Monday: Numbers 17-20 – Tuesday: 1 Chronicles 25-29 – Wednesday: Psalms 108-110 – Thursday: Proverbs 23-24 – Friday: Amos 1-4 – Saturday: John 16-18

Waiting Well

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One of the things that drives me crazy is waiting.

I’d rather arrive 15 minutes early than walk into a meeting 2 minutes late. When I go to a show in Pittsburgh, it drives me absolutely crazy when the ushers are still seating people, with flashlights in their hands, after the show has begun. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Dost thou love life? Then, don’t waste time because that’s what life is made of.”

Jesus once told a story about ten bridesmaids who went to a wedding feast. The women were left waiting outside the banquet hall because the bridegroom didn’t arrive at the party on time. Five bridesmaids were prepared for the wait because they had brought extra oil for their lamps. The other five bridesmaids weren’t prepared, and they had to run to the local market to buy extra oil and they missed the bridegroom’s arrival. The reception started. The great feast was set before the guests. The music started and the great, big doors of the banquet hall were closed. And, when the five bridesmaids who didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps returned, they were sent away.

Have you ever had a time when you needed to “wait upon the Lord”?

I pray with a lot of people who are going through tough times; and, when I do that, I expect God to do something. I spend a lot of time with people who are struggling with a variety of illnesses; and I know what it’s like to pray and pray and pray, and to wait for God to do something. I (like many of  you) have traveled the lonely path of grief and I know what it’s like to long for better days. My granddaughter recently told me that her least favorite part of school is “waiting in line” – and I suspect that that’s true because she doesn’t like “waiting” any more than I do.

The psalmist once wrote: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!” (Psalm 70:1). But the prophet Isaiah has also written: “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall  mount-up with wings like an eagle. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and they shall not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

And so, as people of faith, we’re left in a dilemma. The Bridegroom doesn’t always come when we expect Him to come. God doesn’t always arrive when we expect Him to arrive. Sometimes, we need to learn to “wait upon the Lord.” Sometimes, as people of faith, we need to realize that healing and better days don’t always come quickly even though we have been assured by God that they’ll surely come. And that’s what this week’s message, “Waiting Well”, is all about.

We can learn to “wait upon the Lord” by spending time with people who have learned to wait upon the Lord in their own times of struggle – in private conversations or in support groups. We can learn to “wait upon the Lord” as we continue to remain connected with the community of the Church as it gathers around a Feast of broken break and shared wine. We can learn to “wait upon the Lord” by reflecting upon the promises of God that we find in the Bible and by spending time with God in prayer. We can “wait upon the Lord” in tough times by remaining connected to other people who are building their lives upon the Rock of Jesus Christ and who are “Waiting Well” in the times when God’s arrival doesn’t fit neatly into their schedules either.

The longer I’ve lived and the more I’ve experienced the more I’ve realized that we all need to find ways to faithfully “wait upon the Lord” and to do that “Waiting Well”.

“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount-up with wings like an eagle. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and they shall not faint.” ~ Isaiah 40:31

Where Have All the Saints Gone?

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I sometimes find myself wanting to withdraw, and to protect myself from the constant stream of breaking news and nonsense on social media. I find myself talking with more and more people who are simply tired these days, and I’m talking with more and more people who are simply looking for a sense of peace within the walls of the Church. Even in my times of prayer, I’ve found myself asking God: “Where have all the saints gone?

That’s what this week’s message – “Where Have All the Saints Gone?” – is all about.

Jesus said that the “blessed” are found among the humble and among those who mourn as they watch what’s happening in the news. Jesus said that the “blessed” are still found among the poor, among those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and among those who still search for paths toward peace in crazy times. Jesus said the “blessed” are still found among those who are rejected by others because they are crying-out for justice in a world where other people are telling them to be quiet. When the “Reign of God” breaks into the world – through the lives of God’s saints – it’s always going to come as something that seems to be foreign, weird, strange, and other-worldly.

Even in crazy times, God continues to work through YOU as you put  fingerprints on the world and help our world to become a better place. God’s continues to work through people just like YOU – His saints – as you extend mercy, peace, love and compassion toward others. God works in YOU every time you extend a laurel branch of forgiveness, every time you speak a gentle and encouraging word, every time you help someone to become a better person, and every time you live-into your faith and become an agent of God’s Reign. If you’ve ever asked yourself,  “Where Have All the Saints Gone?”, perhaps you need to simply look in the mirror and think about all the ways that God’s using YOU to make our world into a better place for all of us.

Never forget that what YOU do really matters!

What YOU are doing to fulfill God’s plan for your life really matters and IS helping our world to become a better place. Rise up, O saint of God!